Writing Matters: In conversation with Nayomi Munaweera
Nayomi Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Nigeria and lives in USA. In 2013, her debut novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the Commonwealth Book Prize, Asian region, and was long listed for the Man Asia Prize and the International DUBLIN Literary Award. In 2017, her second book, What Lies Between Us won the State Literary Award for Best English Novel, 2017. Along with renowned Sri Lankan writer Shyam Selvadurai, Nayomi has been a part of the Write to Reconcile Programme in Sri Lanka.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane: Nayomi, welcome to Kitaab. Congratulations on winning Sri Lanka’s State Award for your second book.
I’m intrigued by the titles of your books Island of a Thousand Mirrors and What Lies Between Us – the first visually evocative and the second ironic in its use of the word ‘Lies’. What led to the choice of these titles?
Nayomi Munaweera: I actually do not title my own books. It’s very difficult after you’ve worked on a book for multiple years, eight for the first, four for the second to find a phrase that encapsulates all the thought and complication that you have attempted to explore. Both the titles came after about 3 months of consultation with my publisher, my editor, my agent, my family. The first title came out of an 80 title list. It was a really difficult process to find it. The second was similarly difficult – I think we came up with 60 and before I picked this one. So I would rather write a 300 page book than title it. I leave that to other people.
Sucharita: What was it like to write Island from either side of the socio-political divide while living in a country removed from the scene of this trauma and then to rely on and deal with ‘memory’ as inherent to this story?
I had a lot of fear about whether I was the person to tell this story. Whether it was mine to tell since I had not lived in Sri Lanka since I was three years old and only visited the country every year. I was very aware of my out-sider-ness. I think all writers deal with this. But if you stop there you’ve let fear swallow up your writing. A great deal of writing is about being recklessly, stupidly adamant that you will do the thing. It might not be good but you have to try. It was that sort of foolhardiness that got me through eight years of writing that book and the subsequent three years it took to find a first publisher.
Sucharita: What Lies Between Us leaves behind the politics and history of a country and turns inward to a space that is intensely fissured, to memory that is slippery. For you as the writer, living in the mind of a single character through the traumatic events she internalises, did her emotions, fears and responses come naturally to you, the organic process, or did it involve a lot of research?
Nayomi: It’s both things. I do a lot of research. I also try to slip inside the skin of the character. I try to wear her life as it were. I need to get very close to a character to write a book like that – in the first person present tense especially. So it’s a mishmash of research, dream, memory, imagination. Some of her emotions came naturally, much of the rest of it had to be imagined, felt and then written about. The book is also based on several case studies. So I was following the trajectory of various women that have committed this particular crime.
Sucharita: This book addresses a relationship that, especially to the Asian reader, is very sensitive, what with the halo around the mother-child bond. It is a book in which mothers fail their daughters. While writing it, did you ever mull over other possible responses that Ganga might have to the fears haunting her? What kinds of responses have you received from your readers?
Nayomi: The whole point of the book is that if she had been able to break silence she would not have done what she eventually does. There is a tremendous push towards silence in all our communities. Survivors of child sexual abuse, like my character, are told in a million ways, implicitly and explicitly, that the trauma was their fault, their shame and that therefore they should remain silent. My book is a cautionary tale about what happens when someone internalizes this shame.
The responses have been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had numerous child sexual abuse survivors reach out to me and say reading the book let them acknowledge what had happened to them in childhood. I had an older Sri Lankan man in his 60’s write to me and tell me that as a child he had been molested for years by the local Buddhist monk. He had never talked about this until he read the book. I was the first person he talked about it with. That one story makes my time spent writing the book completely worth it. My character is female, but I think the abuse of boys is yet untold and much more taboo story. Someday someone will write about it. I’m waiting for that book.
Sucharita: There is a lot of advice and information floating around regarding the ‘discipline’ of writing. How do you approach it? Does it involve writing a specific number of words every day, having a corner in which to set up the writing paraphernalia, a mood, an imperative…? Or can a writer be a ‘wanderer’, a nomad in this sense?
Nayomi: When I am in the middle of a book I try to have a schedule. I write from morning as long as I can, usually until about 5pm. I also travel a lot, mostly to promote the books, but this too is feeding the writing. There really isn’t a time that I am not working on the book, internally or externally. Of course when I am not actually writing, there is a tremendous amount of guilt around it but I think this is just an occupational hazard of having the writer’s brain. Even if I’m not working on the book, I am constantly journaling. I’m turning life into a narrative, for myself, no one else sees it. But this too is a way to keep the practice alive and at the front of one’s mind. Like anything else writing is a practice, the more you do it, the better you get. So you have to write a lot, about 10,000 hours, the experts say before you are (perhaps) good at it.
Sucharita: As a writer and an editor, I ask this from either side of the writer-editor continuity. The writer creates, the editor sharpens the creation. As Stephen King says, ‘To write is human. To edit is divine.’ What has been your experience of working on your books with your editors?
Nayomi: I edit a fantastic amount before my editors see it. I try to get most of the mucky work done before someone else gives their input. That way I’m not driven too far off my course by someone else’s opinion. So there will be hundreds of pages written and discarded and written again numerous countless times before anyone sees a manuscript. Editors however are invaluable. My books have both been much better for the various editors I have been lucky enough to work with. In whatever form, editing is indeed divine, I would say it is the majority of the work.
Sucharita: What literary trends do you notice in Sri Lanka – both in Sinhala and English? Are you excited about any particular kind of writing / writer emerging from the country? Has the writing changed in any way post-the civil war in terms of themes, content, tone…?
Nayomi: I’m very excited about the writing coming out of Sri Lanka. There are writers pushing all sorts of envelopes. Chhimi Tenduf-La, Shankari Chandran are writing fantastic and necessary literary fiction. There are also new writers exploring very exciting sci fi/fantasy projects, etc. A few names to look up are Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Amanda Jayatissa, Thilani Samarasinha, Chiranthi Rajapakse, Nalin Weeraratne.
Sucharita: Would you like to share with us your experience with the ‘Write to Reconcile’ programme?
Nayomi: Write to Reconcile is an amazing program in which I was lucky to be co-teacher with Shyam Selvadurai. For three years we picked 24 youth from across Sri Lanka who wanted to study creative writing and gave them residential writing workshops. We lived together and they learned writing skills. We also took trips to visit Tamil and Sinhala survivors of the war. We put out three anthologies of writing. They are all available for free online at www.writetoreconcile.com. Our next project is making sure the three anthologies are available in the three languages of the country. It was a tremendously important project and I am very honoured to be part of it.
Sucharita: Fantasy has been an integral part of storytelling across Asia. Given the difficult and painfully real subjects and themes you write about, do you think you would want to experiment with fantasy in the future?
Nayomi: Nope. I’ll leave that to the experts. My genre is literary fiction. I know it pretty well. Switching genres would be like getting a whole new education on a completely different subject. Also those are not the kind of stories I want to tell and people are doing it so well, I feel no desire to jump into that arena.
Sucharita: When you revisit your writing, are there things you would want to change – the retrospective look that usually comes loaded with dissatisfaction, the writer’s constant regret, in a way? Or do you feel fulfilled with the way you have narrated your stories, the characters you have created?
Nayomi: I don’t revisit my writing. Once the books are done, they belong to the reader and the world, not to me. I love them and I engage with them in a very limited manner when I do readings, etc., but I don’t live in them as a reader might be doing. I’m sure if I did re-read them I would be plunged into exactly what you are talking about, a deep need to rewrite or whatever. But the much more important push is towards the next book. We are always trying to write a perfect book, it’s always going to fall short of that attempt. So it’s an impossible kind of questing. Sadly I don’t have much choice; this is what my brain wants to do. It is also of course a deeply satisfying and profound sort of experience.
Sucharita: Who are your literary influences? Which books do you like to read again or teach?
Nayomi: Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai, Vikram Chandra, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Shyam Selvadurai, Michael Ondatjee, and so many more literary influences. I always teach Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala and The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam. I also love teaching the short stories of George Saunders and Carmen Maria Machado.